TechMan: Hacking, naughty at first, became hard-core, big-money crime
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Computer hacking news has exploded to the point that practically every day there is a story about business or government systems being invaded.
So what is driving this hacking revolution? Actually, TechMan sees it more as evolution driven by technology and new groups getting involved.
Hacking started as teenage computer enthusiasts breaking into computers out of curiosity or for bragging rights.
Many of the "greatest" hackers of the early days rarely made money from their exploits, except maybe for snagging free long-distance phone calls.
But the digital world matured, and the "big boys" -- organized crime and governments -- began to see hacking as a tool for crime and espionage.
Before the Internet, many computers were not accessible unless you went to the machine and logged on. After it, millions of machines were connected to each other.
One of the first popular uses for the new Internet was email. And with the advent of fast electronic mail came spam, unsolicited mass emails. Once people realized that they could make money from spam, it quickly became epidemic, until in 2011 it was estimated that 7 trillion spam messages would be sent.
In 1988, Robert Tappan Morris, a student at Cornell, released a program onto the Internet he said was to measure the size of the network. Instead, the Morris Worm, as it came to be known, crippled the Internet.
Hackers quickly discovered worms could "crawl" the Web, spreading from machine to machine, and could be used to carry malware (bad software). The worms could create vast networks of "zombie computers" under the control of spammers. It was the automation of spam.
As the Internet grew and e-commerce became popular, more and more financial transactions were carried out online, creating tempting new targets.
Criminal groups, many of them centered in Russia and Eastern Europe but certainly not confined to those countries, found they could use network intrusion techniques to steal credit card numbers and to invade online banking.
In July, the FBI busted such a major international cybercrime network that had succeeded in stealing $70 million, proving that the stakes have become very high.
With a massive hack of Google, which it blamed on China, we began to hear of hacking by countries, a form of cyberwarfare.
One of the most ambitious cyberattacks was the 2010 Stuxnet worm that crippled Iran's facilities for refining radioactive materials. Stuxnet was unusual in that its target was software running centrifuges that spun the impurities out of nuclear materials. The worm caused the centrifuges to vary speeds and spin out of balance until they destroyed themselves.
It was the first sighting of a large-scale hack of software that controlled industrial processes, and it raised the fear of attacks on power grids or chemical plants.
Security experts agreed Stuxnet was the work of a nation hostile to Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
Recently a U.S. security firm discovered a computer invasion that has been going on for five years and has been stealing secrets from countries, including the United States, South Korea and Taiwan, and the United Nations, as well as defense contractors and high-tech businesses. It was clear that a country was involved. Although no perpetrator could be proven, many experts pointed to China.
The latest group to emerge is so-called hacktivists, who invade computers not mainly to steal but to make a political point. This movement got fuel from the Wikileaks incidents. A group calling itself Anonymous attacked the websites of businesses that had moved against Wikileaks. Later, a spinoff group called Lulzsec attacked gaming networks and businesses and government websites.
As microprocessors become the heart of everyday devices, they become targets. There have been hacks of cars, cell phones, locks, even medical devices.
Hacking has come a long way from the pimply-faced teen on a computer in his bedroom. Now it's just a fact of life.
First Published August 14, 2011 12:00 am